Responding to drug harms: Can the UK learn from Portugal?

14 mins read

I’m always on the look out for interesting things to film for Let Me Look TV. So when I stumbled across an event called “Responding to drug harms: Can the UK learn from Portugal?” I thought it might be worth checking out.

For pro-reform advocates like myself, Portugal is often cited as a shining example of how drugs reform works – it is the way forward. Personally, I  still think they still need to fully legalise cannabis and regulate it in some way, but that’s a different discussion.

The thing that made me roll my eyes initially was way the title ‘Responding to drug harms’ seemed fairly suggestive, so my expectations weren’t that high at first glance. But after checking out the panellists, I saw it was going to be an interesting event for sure.

The panel consisted of João Castel-Branco Goulão – head of the General-Directorate for Intervention on Addictive Behaviours and Dependencies in Portugal, Mike Barton – Chief Constable for Durham Constabulary, Niamh Eastwood – Executive Director at Release, Kenny MacAskill MSP – Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh East until May 2016 (also between 2007 and 2014 Kenny was the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice) and Baroness Meacher – Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform.

The event was held at Kings College, London. I got there, grabbed a coffee and headed to the Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre. Whilst I arrived in plenty of time. It took me longer than anticipated to get in as I ended up walking around the whole building as I zeroed in on the entrance.

After finally finding a seat and getting my shit together, I looked across to see none other than Professor David Nutt settling in for the lecture as well. Double thumbs up!

, Responding to drug harms: Can the UK learn from Portugal?, ISMOKE
João Castel-Branco Goulão

João Castel-Branco Goulão was up first. He started specialising in addiction in patients back in 1987. Then in 1997 Goulão moved became the director of the network of drug treatment centres for the whole of Portugal. He was a key player in developing the current approach to drugs in Portugal.  His presentation was a fairly technical one with lots of slides and measures of outcomes. Suffice to say by every measure things are better since they stopped criminalising drugs users. Better!. Treating drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal matter has had positive results.

, Responding to drug harms: Can the UK learn from Portugal?, ISMOKE
Kenny MacAskill MSP

Kenny MacAskill stepped up next and straight off the bat he asserted that he was behind a health-based approach to drug users. He went on to describe his constituency and the experience that had given him. From a Justice Secretary perspective, he argued, drugs are better dealt with in a health setting. He emphasised that crime caused by alcohol far exceeded the “drug problem”. He said alcohol remains number one after mental health, and that it presents a significant problem for the courts and prison services.

This is something I really agree with. Of course it impacts on the whole justice and policing system. If only we could fix the mental health system as well as the drug laws… then the police could focus on the real criminals.

Kenny continued his part in the debate, saying that over his time as justice secretary he had seen the violence – normally for drug debt. The lucrative black market in drugs has brought organised crime to the streets of Scotland. Unless the approach is changed it will only spread.

He added that organised crime was affecting small business communities as well. Organised criminals were looking to take over businesses to launder their drug income, distorting local economies so legitimate traders can no longer operate. He later pointed out that many police – senior ones, judges and medical professionals saw the whole thing as pointless. It was a war on drugs that shouldn’t have been started, or even treated as a war in the first place. He said that many politicians agree, but in the end there is always another election to win first. And there are also other political levers that impede. It has to end, the denial. If allowed to continue it will result in a continued growth in the criminal activity related to drugs being illegal. Kenny also discussed the problem with legal highs which until recently got round the laws. They cause far more damage and problems than the illegal drugs. The use of this approach can’t go on. There needs to be a change.

, Responding to drug harms: Can the UK learn from Portugal?, ISMOKE
Mike Barton

The legendary Mike Barton was up next. Serving Chief Constable for Durham Constabulary Barton echoed previous speakers on the health issues. He recounted the case of a violent criminal who had been killed in jail while owing £192 million pounds as proceeds of crime for illegal sale of cannabis, highlighting again the allure of organised criminal gangs to the cannabis trade.

Describing another project of which he is rightly proud, Mike talked about supporting addicts, which has had a positive response. Using prescribed heroin rather than street drugs, it has actually improved health and cut their recovery times. It’s putting dealers out of business, and some have even been putting wraps through letter boxes trying to tempt addicts back.

The message seems clear on so many levels. Drugs need to be taken out of the criminal realm. For everyone’s sake.

Chief Constable Barton now also employs recovered ex-drug users. He is supporting others in their recovery.

, Responding to drug harms: Can the UK learn from Portugal?, ISMOKE
Niamh Eastwood

Niamh Eastwood, executive director at Release added during her talk that there is a social and racial element to how current drugs laws are enforced. This, in turn impacts negatively on minority communities and young people’s lives. It causes problems with travel abroad, careers, and the stigma of having a record. It also negatively impacts future housing prospects.

90% of the people that take drugs do it for fun and without issue to themselves – for recreational purposes. The biggest risks faced are adulterants, lack of education and criminalisation.

For the 10% that had problems with drugs, there are other factors at play – many were survivors of abuse. People who went through physical or mental ordeals, often both, along with people suffering mental health problems who were self-medicating, she said.

This rang true to me – we have to give proper support people with mental health needs. It’s something that 1 in 5 to 1 in 4 people will suffer at some point, and it barely gets a look in when health budgets are allocated.

She added that when it comes to the morality of drug laws, it is ridiculous that people who went through every type of abuse as children are being criminalised because they self-medicate to deal with what they went through. There is no morality in that.

Her organisation Release advocates the end of criminal sanction for all drugs. Release also advocates people being able to legally cultivate cannabis For personal use.

She showed using research from studies covering 25 jurisdictions around the world that  the legality has had little impact on the use of cannabis. Its use was more closely tied to other factors, trends and social changes.

Eastwood also brought up some other figures – did you know that in the UK there has been a 64% increase in heroin/opioid-related death in the last two years?

The data shows us time and again that the outcomes for jobs, housing and employment are all negatively impacted when dealt with by law enforcement rather than civil or health routes. Eastwood ended calling for more support along the lines of Durham’s approach but adding that Theresa May seems to not be on board with local incentives and that the results must be demonstrated to her.

, Responding to drug harms: Can the UK learn from Portugal?, ISMOKE
Baroness Meacher

Baroness Meacher, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform stated that we could and should head towards a Portugal-style model at the least. “Basically, we’ve spent 50 years destroying people’s lives by throwing them in prison. They’ve been robbed of their liberty, dignity and lives through these laws over the last 50 years. Criminalising people for this has to end.” She said. She added that we know 66% of women and 38% of men in prison admitted stealing for drugs at some point. Also that one in five heroin addicts first took Heroin in prison.

The Baroness had some hope from the recent General Assembly “special session on the world drug problem”. She said we seem to be gravitating towards a more evidence-based approach. From the UN and ultimately the US this is a significant change from the previous “war on drugs”.

Ms Meacher mentioned toward the end of her part in the talk that the one and only positive thing in the psychoactive substance act coming into force this month is an allowance for cannabis. “This Government has accepted the principle of decriminalisation in in this act. I believe that it may be movement by the government on the medicinal cannabis issue.”

She described a number of diseases where the use of cannabis is efficacious., adding Italy and Germany are already in the process of preparing for medical cannabis.  In closing Meacher also promoted the End Our Pain campaign, which can be found at

The Government’s current approach to drugs makes no sense. However, as we have seen before with this government, changes can be made if you are persistent. They have made u-turns in the past, and there is a tidal shift of will for change building in the UK. Just look at the result of any poll asking whether cannabis should be legalised in the UK and you’ll see that more than half of people want it legalised and sold in licensed shops.  The Government cannot continue it’s ‘we will wait for evidence approach’. The evidence is already there, and it was great to see today’s speakers arguing for the end of the war on drugs.

Write Up By LetMeLookTV

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